I finally, at long last (and after an irritating technical snafu involving a DVD that suddenly acted like it was possessed just as I was really getting into it), got to see the documentary Who is Harry Nilsson? And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him?. What's that, you say? Who the hell is Harry Nilsson, and why does this film have such a long title? If you're around my mom's age, chances are you already know who Nilsson was. Harry Nilsson was one of the most prolific singer-songwriters to come out of his generation, and the title is a reference to the song "Everybody's Talkin'" from Oscar-winning film Midnight Cowboy. Nilsson sang the song (which he did not, in fact, write) for the film, and won a Grammy for it. His album Nilsson Schmilsson was nominated for just about every Grammy it could have been.
This documentary about the singer-songwriter with one of the best voices of his generation has all the elements of a fine narrative film: A boy, abandoned by his father; a childhood and adolescence spent living with various relatives; that lucky first break that led to more; the son he later abandoned himself, as his father did before him; the redemption he found later with his second wife and their kids. This isn't a fictional tale though, it was Nilsson's life. Like a lot of artists, Nilsson used his art as a means to express his feelings and talk about his life. One of his better-known songs, "1941", chronicles his history with his father:
Well in 1941 a happy father had a son
And by 1944 the father walked right out the door
And in '45 the mom and son were still alive
But who could tell in '46 if the two were to survive
as well as the history he was creating for his own son:
Now in 1961 a happy father had a son
And by 1964 the father walked right out the door
And in '65 the mom and son were still around
But what will happen to the boy
When the circus comes to town
Nilsson later vented his feelings about his split from first wife Diane with "The Breakup Song" (which also features electric guitar by Peter Frampton), a song whose lyrics have probably been muttered by more than one jilted lover: "You're breaking my heart, you're tearing me apart, so f*ck you...". For several years, Nilsson worked a night job at a bank, working with computers (Nilsson, who had only finished ninth grade, lied about his education to get the job, but proved so adept at working with the bank's new computers that they kept him on anyhow). By day, he wrote songs and tried to sell them. His first break came in 1966, when he signed with RCA Victor and released his album Pandemonium Shadow Show. That album was the first to take full advantage of Nilsson's three-octave singing voice, and it caught the attention of a Brit named Derek Taylor, who happened to be the press manager for a little band called The Beatles.
Taylor liked Nilsson's album so much, he bought a caseful to hand out to friends, including The Beatles, who famously listened repeatedly to the entire album in a 36-hour weekend marathon. Nilsson was surprised to get calls from both John Lennon and Paul McCartney telling him how much they loved his work. Later, Lennon, when asked at a press conference to name his favorite American musician, replied, "Nilsson." Then McCartney was asked to name his favorite American group, and he gave the same answer: "Nilsson." After he was invited to England to hang out with the Beatles, Nilsson became close friends (Ringo Starr was Nilsson's best man when he married his second wife, Una), and then unceremoniously fired his producer with a telegram saying "Thanks for nothing."
Over the years that followed, Nilsson kept writing and recording, but his tendency to completely change musical styles and his refusal to play live or tour hindered his progress. Nilsson achieved his greatest commercial success when he teamed with producer Richard Perry on the album Nilsson Schmilsson, which garnered him much praise and countless accolades. During this time, though, Nilsson came to be known as much for his wild side (he reportedly was able to drink both John Lennon and Keith Moon under the table) as his music; his partying didn't slow his creative flow, but he became increasingly insular about his music, not listening to input from Perry or others. His later efforts after Nilsson Schmilsson, he never gave up total creative control the way he had with Perry -- and never duplicated that success. Perry wanted to follow up the success of Nilsson Schmilsson with another album of the same nature; Nilsson wanted to go another direction creatively and record an album of standards (the critically praised A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night), so the two parted ways.
It was during the recording sessions for 1974's Pussy Cats, produced by John Lennon during Lennon's "lost weekend" in Los Angeles, that Nilsson injured his vocal cords, reportedly in a dare with Lennon over who could scream the loudest. Although Nilsson would go on to record later works, his voice was never quite the same. After Lennon was murdered in 1980, Nilsson became obsessed with gun control and focused much of his energy on that cause.
Thanks to the discovery of Nilsson's oral autobiography, the makers of Who is Harry Nilsson? And Why is Everybody Talkin' About Him? are able to tell much of the story in the singer's own voice. It's kind of eerie, listening to a dead man talking about his life, but it's nonetheless very effective. As interesting as Nilsson was as an artist, though, where the documentary really shines is in showing us Nilsson the man. Interviews with Nilsson's children are particularly fascinating. Comparing his older son with first wife Diane, with the children he later had with second wife Una, was particularly telling; it's as if Nilsson's children are talking about two different people, and in a sense, they are. Nilsson's older son radiates sorrow over his father's abandonment (although the two did have a relationship later on), his voice breaking as he reads a note Nilsson wrote one night while sitting by his son's crib, and expressing the painful hope that his father really must have loved him after all, to write something like that.
Nilsson's later children, by contrast, speak of their father glowingly; clearly, they shared a closer relationship with their father than he was able to have with the son he fathered in his youth. The tale of how their mother and father met is part of the romantic family lore; it seems, at least as the film reveals Nilsson's history, that with Una and their children together, Nilsson at last found some peace and redemption. He died in 1994, almost a year after suffering a massive heart attack. Who is Harry Nilsson was a labor of love, produced by Nilsson's friends and lawyer, and woven into a beautifully cohesive portrait of this complex artist. Writer/director John Scheinfeld does a marvelous job of using Nilsson's own voice, pictures and videos borrowed from family and friends, interviews with those who knew Nilsson, and Nilsson's own music as the film's soundtrack, to paint a compelling portrait of the man as father, son, artist and friend. If you didn't know who Nilsson was before watching the film, you'll come away with a greater appreciation of the man's part in musical history. Fans of Nilsson, though, might most enjoy getting to know better this enigmatic, marvelously creative artist as a man.